Orphan Black

Summer is a bit of a bummer for people like me, whose daily thrill is watching an hour of high-quality TV.  Summer traditionally is a bit of desert for series that can be considered part of TV’s now over-a-decade-old Renaissance.

Summer series like Showtime’s “Ray Donovan” – well produced and interesting – don’t rise to the level of True Detective and Game of Thrones from HBO or Mad Men and Breaking Bad from AMC. That’s not too slight, Ray Donovan. Jon Voight did perform his life in a career full of wonderful ones. His performance was recognized with a well-deserved Golden Globe for best supporting actor in a very competitive field. Still, the series misses me, and I am not excited about its return this weekend.

I did find something fabulous to fill in the interim, the BBC America series Orphan Black. Wow!

This is the most consistently riveting BBC dramatic series since the 6-episode State of Play (later turning into a perfect Russel Crowe film).

In case you don’t know, Orphan Black has been a series with a heavy buzz.  Not only did this drama about clones make the cover of Entertainment Weekly, but it also won scores of awards, including the artistically coveted Peabody. It’s a wildly inventive mix of sci-fi and police-drama genres that is unique. While at times it feels like other shows, almost always it goes further in unexpected, often shocking, directions.

The most remarkable thing about this drama is the genuinely dazzling performance by Canadian actress Tatiana Maslany. Playing all the clones (about 9 in total thus far) is the type of role that, in less capable hands, could sink the show by turning into camp. That never happens.

Maslany is entirely believable because she does so much more than just put on a wig and glasses to transform herself into another clone. She fully embodies each personality. It’s a physically demanding set of performances, reminding me of Jennifer Garner’s star-making turn in Alias. Orphan Black is acting, writing, and directing coming together as all great series do.  This series is not to be missed by any fan of serialized drama.

When the Emmy Awards were announced this week, Maslany’s lack of being nominated for Season 2 raised a chorus of “snub” across the internet. Because she’s already won the Television Critics Award for best actress twice, this chatter is entirely understandable. And seriously, as good as Julianna Margulies is in The Good Wife and Robin Wright is in House of Cards – they are only playing one role. Snub indeed.

The real hook for this series isn’t Maslany’s performance. What makes this a show to watch right away is the overall craft of the storytelling executed by creators Graeme Mason and John Fawcett and their team on over a dozen writers.  In this Game of Thrones world of serialized drama, shocking the audience has never been more challenging. Orphan Black stuns, over and over, never straying into the implausible. Keeping this up through another season will be tough.

All you need to do is start at the beginning and let it unfold.  You’ll see this isn’t “a stupid show about clones with cheesy effects” – as I feared it would. Instead, you’ll find a completely original series with the best from Television’s Renaissance.

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